‘Documentation’ first step on a perilous pathway

Published 9:18 am Tuesday, August 10, 2010

During the early history of the United States, immigration was largely uncontrolled. Anyone who could survive the journey to get here could come ashore. People were who they said they were, and could reinvent themselves for a new start.

When I helped my brother document family history, we found some family lines in Europe, like the Douglas family in Scotland and the Counts of Anjou in France, were started by soldiers of fortune who showed up on the scene. Some more recent lines in the American colonies were also traced back to people from unknown origins who showed up somewhere. Names were often derived from locations, physical descriptions or occupations.

As people later moved westward in the United States, the same rules applied. People were free to move about if they were willing to risk freezing in mountain passes or being attacked by Native Americans. One of my great-grandmothers remembered moving west by wagon and that the women dressed in men’s clothing to make the wagon train look stronger.

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As people moved about, names went through various iterations, often spelled phonetically by people who were not good at spelling. People could continue changing names to suit themselves. Most people were not particularly concerned. Individuals could also claim various professional standing. If you owned a Bible, you could be a country preacher, and some of my ancestors filled that role, one line of descent coming from the first Baptist congregation in the American colonies. Likewise, if you owned a law book, you could claim to be a lawyer. I read an amusing account of a man hiring a cook based on the fact that the man owned a cookbook. A pair of barber shears and a comb made you a barber and a pair of dental pliers made you a dentist. My father could remember someone showing up on market days, sitting people down on a tree stump, and pulling teeth for a dollar a tooth.

Over time, restrictions have been put in place on the movement of people, and efforts have been made to more positively identify everyone and to set standards for professional credentials. We now have a situation where Arizona has taken the lead, followed by other states, to determine people’s legal status. Call it the Arizona plan.

The arguments being put forward by Arizona and elsewhere are mainly about economic status. Forget what it says on the Statue of Liberty. Nobody wants you if you are sick or if you are poor. You would require more in services than the amount that you contributed in taxes.

Read “The Grapes of Wrath.” Envision states manning their borders to exclude the influx of “undesirable” people from other states. Send the Okies back to Muskogee.

This proposed requirement for proof of legal residency does create a major problem because most legal residents do not carry documentation to prove their status. A driver’s license is not proof because anyone can get a license. Ultimately, Arizona’s law would require everyone to have a national identity card, similar to the internal passport in France that played a role in “Les Miserables.” Recall the problem encountered by Jean Valjean when he was given a yellow passport.

A national identity card, issued for national security purposes, would require the government to maintain a database containing information on everyone in the country. Security always requires relinquishing a certain amount of personal freedom. This raises a question on how much you trust the government. More to the point, it is letting a camel get its head into the tent, and raises a question about how much you can trust future governments led by politicians not yet known to you. They could get up to all sorts of mischief when they decided on what information to include. Some people already think that the census is intrusive. This would go a giant step beyond that. One could imagine that it might include everything from arrest records to employment, health, and financial history. Repressive governments thrive on documentation that tracks members of the general population. Untimately it could lead to George Orwell’s “1984.” Big Brother is watching you.

Before people jump on this bandwagon, they need to determine if this is a road they want to do down, and they need to be sure that the bandwagon is not a handcart rolling downhill toward a deep chasm. It is all very easy to say that you are a law-abiding citizen and this would keep you safe without causing you any problems. Sure. The government will always do what is best for you. We are from the government, and we are here to help you. Governments rely on people believing that.

I am surprised that some people complaining about “big government” also seem to be in favor of documentation that has the potential for being a major intrusion into personal privacy.

Fred E. Camfield is retired and lives in Vicksburg. E-mail reaches him at fecamfield@bellsouth.net.